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HISTORY OF MEDICINE
Year : 2017  |  Volume : 20  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 103-105
 

Frederic Andrews Gibbs and the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy


Department of Neuromedicine, RG Kar Medical College, Kolkata, West Bengal, India

Date of Web Publication8-May-2017

Correspondence Address:
Kalyan B Bhattacharyya
Amrapali Point, Flat 1C, 59F, Bosepukur Road, Kolkata - 700 042, West Bengal
India
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None


DOI: 10.4103/aian.AIAN_439_16

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   Abstract 

Frederic Gibbs, the peerless expert on electroencephalogrphy was summoned to provide opinion on the EEG tracing of Jack Ruby, who murdered Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassin of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the American President, in 1963. Gibbs pleaded that the tracing suggested features indicative of psychomotor epilepsy and Ruby killed Oswald in a state of fugue. His view was not agreed upon but Gibbs stood his ground unflinchingly. Subsequent appeals to the higher court spared Ruby from imminent execution and finally he died a natural death from metastatic complications of carcinoma of the lung in 1967.


Keywords: Electroencephalography, Frederic Gibbs, Jack Ruby, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Lee Harvey Oswald


How to cite this article:
Bhattacharyya KB. Frederic Andrews Gibbs and the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Ann Indian Acad Neurol 2017;20:103-5

How to cite this URL:
Bhattacharyya KB. Frederic Andrews Gibbs and the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Ann Indian Acad Neurol [serial online] 2017 [cited 2020 May 31];20:103-5. Available from: http://www.annalsofian.org/text.asp?2017/20/2/103/205771


If any neurologist ever played a pivotal role in the complicated trial of a victim accused of the murder of President of a country, it must be Frederic Gibbs of the United States of America. His arguments as an expert summoned by the defense attorney remains a classic in the face of scrutinizing queries from the prosecution which subsequently changed the course of the trial.

Gibbs was born in 1903 and studied in Yale University and later trained in Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Baltimore [Figure 1]. He worked with William Lennox, the peerless epileptologist, and met Erna Leonhardt, the electroencephalography (EEG) [Figure 2] technician in the laboratory in Harvard Medical School, who was to be his wife later. He met Albert Grass, a young graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and they were instrumental in devising a 3-channel EEG machine in 1935. The same year he met Hans Berger, the father of EEG, in Germany and moved to University of Illinois School of Medicine, where he was appointed as Professor of Epilepsy Clinic.[1]
Figure 1: Frederic Andrews Gibbs (1903–1992). Source: Http://www.cerebromente.org

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Figure 2: The electroencephalography of Jack Ruby, showing 6/s slow waves from right temporal lobe. Source: http://www.mmcneuro.word

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Gibbs and his wife Erna, carried out collaborative works all their lives and in 1935 they documented the classical 3 Hertz spike and wave discharges in absence seizure.[1],[2] As a matter of fact, this is the first description of a specific variety of discharges in the EEG in a certain disease. In a further article, entitled, “Relation Between the Electrical Activity of the Cortex and the Personality in Adolescent Boys,” published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine in 1942, they showed that unusually slow cortical activities were associated with poor personality, as shown in the performance scale.[1],[3] In 1950, they drew attention to hypnagogic hypersynchrony in the EEG and declared that these were normal variants of sleep.[4] These apart, they also described a kind of epileptiform discharges, known as hypsarrythmia or mountainous arrhythmia, in two hundred and thirty seven children with infantile spasms and published their observation in the journal Pediatrics in 1954, entitled, “Diagnosis and Prognosis of Hypsarrthythmia and Infantile Spasms.”[1],[5] Another important work of Gibbs and Gibbs, published in 1960 is “Good Prognosis of Mid-Temporal Epilepsy,” where they demonstrated that as opposed to anterior or posterior temporal spikes predominating, this variety of epilepsy was prognostically less sinister.[1],[6] One of their lesser known works published in Science in 1962 is the documentation of extreme spindles as a diagnostic corroborate of mental retardation.[1],[7]

John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917–1963), the former President of the United States of America of the Democratic Party was assassinated by one Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas, Texas on the November 22, 1963 while on a campaign, and the assassin himself was murdered 2 days later by Jack Ruby, owner of a night club in Dallas, when Oswald was being moved from the police headquarters to a county jail amidst tight security. Ruby arrived from nowhere, shot Oswald in the abdomen, and was arrested. The trial started in early March in 1964 and the defense set out to prove that Jack Ruby had a troubled mind and the reputed defense Attorney, Melvin Belli, presented two witnesses initially, namely, Little Lynn, a 19-year-old stripper, who said, “… he had a very quick temper. He'd fly off the handle,” while Penny Dollar, the second witness and a stripper as well, narrated an incident of Ruby's animated altercation with a taxi driver, beating his head on the pavement and then suddenly stopping and asking “Did I do this?”[8],[9]

When Gibbs was asked to read and report his EEG, he declined to attend the court and his written conclusion was that the EEG tracing was characterized by 6/s temporal spikes in the right side, indicative of psychomotor epilepsy (PME). He wrote, “…show seizure disorders of the psychomotor variant type” and suggested that these subjects manifest personality instability, lack of emotional control and eccentricities in behavior. He further felt that Ruby killed Oswald during a fugue state induced by an attack of psychomotor seizure.[10] However, when the prosecution dismissed his views on March 12th and pleaded that the EEG findings were only a “slight abnormality,” which did not indicate epilepsy, and moreover, his demeanor was not consistent with that of a victim of psychomotor seizure, Gibbs was perturbed, and notwithstanding his initial reluctance to appear in person before the court, he felt otherwise and decided to fly to Dallas from Chicago late in the night in order to defend his opinion without charging any fee. The questions that Gibbs faced and his riposte in such a convoluted problem are provided below.[8],[9],[10]

Melvin Belli: “Did you find from the EEG tracings what Jack Ruby is suffering from?”

Frederic Gibbs: “I have determined that Jack Ruby has a rare form of epilepsy. Not the form with seizures, but the type which afflicts one half of one percent of all epilepsies, and it has a very distinctive epileptoid pattern.”

Belli: “Was your finding clear or borderline?”

Gibbs: 'It was clear.'

Belli: “Does this type of disease appear rarely in the tracings?”

Gibbs: “It is rare. Like leprosy--it is rare but when you've got it you know have it.”

Belli: “You have examined 50,000 separate EEGs. Have you not?”

Gibbs: “I have.”

Belli: “And in 253 cases PME was unmistakable.”

Gibbs: “Yes.”

Belli: “And in this one, Jack Ruby's is unmistakable?”

Gibbs: “It is.”

At this juncture, William Alexander, the seasoned and crafty prosecution lawyer interjected and made an effort to induce Gibbs to change his view. He asked,

”Do I understand PME variant is a disease?”

Gibbs: “It is a form of the disease of epilepsy.”

Alexander: “It is not in the American nomenclature of diseases?”

Gibbs: “There is a great deal of lag in medical nomenclature. It will be.”

Alexander: “Do you have any opinion as to Ruby knew right from wrong and the nature and consequences of his act on November 24?”

Gibbs: “I have no opinion.”

Gibbs was about to leave the stand when Belli said,

”One minute. The judge may have a question or the jury…”

Judge Joe Brown: “I have none. And I'm sure the jury has none. And if had any, I wouldn't let them ask them.”

Gibbs left the court, his head held high. He couldn't be motivated to change his impression.[8],[9]

It was now the turn of the defense to interrogate other experts and Walter Bromberg, a noted psychiatrist from Chicago, who saw Ruby a number of times before, was summoned by the court and he opined that Ruby was mentally ill and did not know the consequences of his act. He further stated that the accused was in a suspended state of consciousness and was a victim of PME.[8] On the contrary, Robert Schwab, Director of EEG at the Massachusetts General Hospital, commented that the waves in Ruby's EEG were not totally unusual and they did not represent convulsions or seizures; they could be found in those with history of repeated injury to the brain and indicated only minor and nonspecific changes. Francis Foster, Dean of Wisconsin School of Medicine, virtually echoed the words of Schwab and stated categorically that the EEG did not support the diagnosis of PME. Ronald Mackay, a neurologist from Illinois was also of the same opinion and even said that despite the reputation of Gibbs, an authority, he was wrong in this particular case. The defense attorneys had therefore, little to provide, once so many experts ruled out PME. Roy Schafer, the noted psychiatrist from the Yale University, was called upon by Melvin Belli and after performing a series of psychological tests on the accused, he declared that a number of organic damages in Ruby's brain presumably led to the development of PME and periodical mood swings.[1] Martin Towler, a neurologist at the University of Texas in Galveston and a court-appointed expert, also examined him and testified to the defendant's history of head injuries and the consequent development of probable psychomotor variant of epilepsy. He said that there were paroxysmal discharges of slow wave activity of 5–6/s and this was an abnormal EEG. He further said that while examining Ruby he referred to some symptoms such as pricking sensation in the head, spells of uneasiness and strange unfamiliarity, while Manfred Guttmacher, chief medical officer of the Supreme Court of Baltimore and an expert on criminal psychology, stressed upon his history of troubled childhood and upbringing and extreme emotional lability, impulsivity, and outbursts of aggression.[11] He said, “I don't think he was capable of knowing right from wrong or understood the nature and consequences of his act at the time of the alleged homicide. I think he was struggling to keep his sanity…” Finally, he declared that Ruby killed Oswald in a fugue state.[1],[11]

After careful reflection and analysis judge Joe Brown and the jury pronounced that Jack Ruby was guilty of “murder with malice, as charged in the indictment and … assess his punishment at death.” Ruby's advocates however, appealed further before the higher court and the trial went on indefinitely. The Appeals Court finally agreed that Ruby did not receive a fair trial owing to excessive publicity and he was thus spared the noose for the time. Finally, he succumbed from the complications of carcinoma of the lung with metastasis on the January 3, 1967 and with that ended, in a rather anti-climactic note, the high drama of the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Ludwig Guttmann's passing comment that PME has become a historical footnote is quite revealing and apposite.[11] Frederic Gibbs died in 1992.

Financial support and sponsorship

Nil.

Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

 
   References Top

1.
Bhattacharyya KB. Eminent Neuroscientist: Their Lives & Works. 1st ed. Kolkata: Academic Publishers; 2011.  Back to cited text no. 1
    
2.
Gibbs FA, Davis H, Lennox WG. The electro-encephalogram in epilepsy and in conditions of impaired consciousness. Arch Neurol Psychiatr 1935;34:1133-48.  Back to cited text no. 2
    
3.
Gallaghar RJ, Gibbs EL, Gibbs FA. Relation between the electrical activity of the cortex and the personality in adolescent boys. Psychosom Med 1942;4:134-9.  Back to cited text no. 3
    
4.
Gibbs FA, Gibbs EL. Atlas of Electroencephalography. Vol. 1. Cambridge: Addison-Wesley Press; 1950.  Back to cited text no. 4
    
5.
Gibbs EL, Fleming MM, Gibbs FA. Diagnosis and prognosis of hypsarhythmia and infantile spasms. Pediatrics 1954;13:66-73.  Back to cited text no. 5
[PUBMED]    
6.
Gibbs EL, Gibbs FA. Good prognosis of mid-temporal epilepsy. Epilepsia 1960;1:448-53.  Back to cited text no. 6
[PUBMED]    
7.
Gibbs EL, Gibbs FA. Extreme spindles: Correlation of electroencephalographic sleep pattern with mental retardation. Science 1962;138:1106-7.  Back to cited text no. 7
[PUBMED]    
8.
Him, Joe? The Midnight Plane. But was justice done in Dallas? Life; March 27th, 1964.  Back to cited text no. 8
    
9.
Belli MM, Carroll MC. Dallas Justice: The Real Story of Jack Ruby and His Trial. New York: McKay; 1964.  Back to cited text no. 9
    
10.
The Neurology of JFK's Assassination. Neurology Update. November 23rd, 2013.  Back to cited text no. 10
    
11.
Gutmann L. Jack Ruby. Neurology 2007;68:707-8.  Back to cited text no. 11
[PUBMED]    


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